Telling Time

Try as you might, a walk through the dusty chattering market town of Gabú – entertaining as it might be – simply won’t impress you with the town’s distinguished past. There are no grand monuments, no crumbling palaces, not even a sign to tell you that this was once the capital of the powerful kingdom of Kaabu (1537–1867). Yet even if its grand story is not immediately visible, it’s certainly remembered. Kaabu’s living memory sits 40km further southwest, in a tiny village called Tabato. This extraordinary community is home to El Hadj Mountarou Diabate and his extended family of griots (traditional caste of musicians or praise singers). For centuries, Diabate’s ancestors have played their music both for the region’s kings and common people, and in doing so have preserved the greatest stories. When the village gets together, strumming koras and breaking into song, you sense the grandeur of Kaabu’s kings, elaborately painted in the griot’s words.

Tabato is certainly not the only griot village around, but its family has chosen to open their world to others. Busking in the streets of Bissau, they raised enough funds to build a little museum, where you can look at the griot’s instruments and hear about the stories of the region’s past. It’s also the place to arrange kora, drumming, balafon (xylophone) or singing courses, or to enjoy the stories and songs (for a donation).